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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Building a New Way, Together

Written by Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer, chief executive officer, Alia

We no longer need to make the case that dramatic change is needed in child welfare. There is no compelling evidence to continue separating families and placing children with strangers or in institutions. We now know the current system of family separation was built on a set of false assumptions—that "rescuing" Black, Brown, indigenous, or poor White children from their families and placing them with Whiter or richer families provides them a "better" life—and has not, by any measure, produced the desired outcomes. Rather than listing the litany of ways the system has failed children and their families and making a compelling case that the cure has become worse than the disease, let's focus on building a new way, together.

Our new way of work does not yet have a name. Some call it the "family-strengthening system," "family well-being system," etc. What we know is that it is not the current system. So, at Alia, we call this mindset that supports and strengthens families an "UnSystem"—in other words, not the current system. We know a new way of work that keeps children safely with their families will eventually have a commonly agreed-upon name. We also know we have come to the end of what our talking, "task forcing," and work planning can do. Instead, we must start codesigning what we do next with families and those with lived experience in child welfare. It's time to try new things to further our learning.

In May 2017, to define this new way of work, Alia partnered with the human-centered design firm IDEO and 100 innovators in child welfare representing various areas of expertise to host the Ten of Ten for Kids, a 4-day child welfare system redesign event. For this event, half of the 100 designers were from underrepresented groups, and a third had lived experience. After coding what was in common across the 30 different prototypes of what we might do differently, it was clear the wrong design question was asked. Instead of asking "How might we develop a better child welfare system?" we should have asked, "When families struggle—as all families do—how might we keep families safely together?" Because the truth is, when it works well, the perfect child welfare system already exists; it's called "the family." The 100 designers created a collection of ideas (hallmarks of an UnSystem) that would help strengthen families, including ideas such as value and build—rather than disconnect—family ties; build supportive, consistent connections; put the whole family at the center; use local, culturally specific resources delivered immediately; focus on building resilience, joy, well-being, and health; engage natural supports; and ensure responses are family driven.

Additionally, the guidance of the 100 designers gave birth to the following seven guiding principles: (1) protect relational connections as sacred; (2) nurture the capacity for joy; (3) insist on racial equity and radical inclusion; (4) dare to share power; (5) commit to intergenerational well-being; (6) trust the wisdom of children and families to design their own futures; and (7) do what love would do—in other words, if you aren't sure what to do, do what you'd do for someone you love. However great these ideas were, though, they were just that—ideas. That was the case until 14 counties in four states (North Dakota, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Iowa) agreed to form the UnSystem Innovation Cohort and put these ideas into practice to build a proof of concept that public child welfare agencies can become primary prevention agencies. Over the past 2 years, leaders and deputies from these 14 counties, along with lived-experience guides and professional guides, shifted mindsets and practice. Over 1 year, these shifts resulted in a 12-percent average reduction in foster care placements and a 37-percent average reduction in residential placements across the cohort.

The following are the top five lessons learned:

  • Prepare and take care of yourself and your team.
  • Think differently about the work.
  • Make the old way harder.   
  • Trust families as the safe bet.
  • Expand the group of helpers.

A key learning from the cohort is that if you change a few things, no one will bother you much; however, there can be a dear price to pay if you begin to move the system in substantial ways. The backlash of change can come from many places, and it's essential for leaders to build connections, communication, codesigning, and community at all points in the change process. As a transformation effort is underway, change leaders can create understanding through communicating the "why" of the process, telling the data story, and sharing the human story. The specifics and details of the innovation cohort can be found in the Cohort Year One Report, released in the spring of 2020, which contains a special section called "Guidance for Leaders" that discusses the change process. The Cohort Year One Report, a research brief titled Evidence Base for Avoiding Family Separation, a report titled The Unseen Costs of Foster Care: A Social Return on Investment Study, and other resources are also available on the resources webpage of the Alia website.  

The key to moving forward in transforming the current child welfare system into a new way of work that keeps children safely with their families is requiring systems to work together and in partnership with families and communities. Transformation is a goal too massive for any one person, organization, or system to do alone. True change will come when we work together to create the community conditions where all people, especially children and their families, can thrive. We don't need to know exactly what to do to begin, and it's not up to professionals or systems to figure this out by ourselves. We just need to take the lead from families—who know better than anyone else what their needs are—and start "doing." Helping families to safely raise their own children is the key. Hero-based rescuing and removing and out-of-family placement must end. We simply know better; now let's do better.